Review: The Americans, Episode 4

I was a little disappointed in this episode, not because I didn’t like it but because it was just a smidge beneath the bar set by the previous few episodes. If this were an episode of almost any other show on television, I’d have considered it spectacular output, but since it’s The Americans, I feel compelled to hold it to a bit of a higher standard. I think much of what didn’t work springs from the fact that it took place during the events of an actual, well-known historical event, which is to say the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, so we had to buy into the pivotal role the protagonists had in the events of that day. Beeman’s storyline feels real enough, but we all know so much about what happened that day that the stakes of what the Jennings are up to just don’t hit home. As long as the show doesn’t try to stage this kind of big historical event too often (and, really, Reagan was only shot at once so presumably that’s all we’ll get too) I don’t think it hurts its overall strength much.

While I’m on the subject of what didn’t work, I want to address one thing that has bothered me with the show so far (it’s small, so it still doesn’t affect my overarching assessment): the humor and/or dramatic irony the show tries to pull out of the kids not knowing what their parents do for a living. You can handle that kind of lack of knowledge a few different ways, but in general, most shows don’t do it very well and it’s often best left alone. So when we see Paige talking to Matthew (Agent Beeman’s son) about his father’s job as an agent for the FBI, and how she’s glad her parents work a safe job like ‘travel agent-ing,” it doesn’t land at all. To make matters worse, the two teens then make a bunch of jokes about the inherent ‘dangers’ of being a travel agent (leaky boats, plane delays, etc). It’s such a small part of the show that I almost feel bad picking it out as a weakness, but at this point it’s happened enough that I can’t continue to ignore it – like back in episode two when Paige pointedly tells her mother that “people are freer now than when you were a kid.” No fucking kidding, and the show should consider its audience smart enough (it certainly does the rest of the time) to get that implication without having Paige say it.

What does work: we’ve watched the Jennings, over the past few episodes, evolve from the life they’ve been living – spies in reality, a married couple only as cover – to where they are now, finally beginning to consider the marriage real as well. The wordless scene we have of them meeting in a hotel room early in the episode is perfect, because it feels like the long-delayed consummation of their marriage. Yes, they’ve obviously been here before (Paige and Henry are proof), but that was part of the cover, and was for the motherland. This is for them.

Then they leave the hotel room and the honeymoon, as it were, is immediately over – they find out Reagan’s been shot. What ensues are scenes with both the FBI and the KGB, in which neither really knows what’s going on and both are trying to figure out if the other country is about to fire nuclear missiles at them. Elizabeth and Phillip are asked to begin sighting their targets, which apparently means driving around the suburbs of D.C. and literally sighting lines for sniper shots at high-ranking government officials – and they are almost caught outside the Defense Secretary’s house, so Elizabeth has to make quick work of a security guard. They then have to spend some time hiding the body, so I’m sure that will come back to haunt them in the weeks ahead.

All the while, the two of them are bickering like, well, an old married couple. It has the tone of any argument between a couple that loves each other but still has disagreements, it’s just that their disagreements happen to be about almost getting caught sighting sniper shots and how the work they’re doing represents escalation towards a possible nuclear war.

Which brings me to one more thing that’s been bugging me since the pilot: I’m not totally in love with the way Elizabeth’s character and history have been developed. This is bigger than the problems I mentioned before because it could represent a problem for the show moving forward. I know they’re trying to make her into the half of the partnership that is really loyal to the cause and truly a Russian at heart, while Phillip is represented as drawn to the American way of life and clearly willing (as is made quite obvious in the pilot) to abandon the mission, but it really feels like Elizabeth is increasingly represented as irrational where Phillip is reasonable, as rash where he is restrained. At best this speaks to the ideological slant of the show and the way the writers view Soviet-era Russians; at worst, it’s rather lazy and slightly sexist writing. They’ve tried to address Elizabeth’s motivations to act the way she does through flashbacks and some soliloquies on her part, but I’d like to see them do a better job of it in the next two-thirds of the season (also, this is only the fourth episode, so there’s ample time for character development to change dramatically).

Final notes: Nina is lucky Beeman is so damn good at his job, because she was almost made. On the other hand, Beeman is not so lucky he’s so good at his job, because it has caused (possibly) irreparable damage to his marriage.

Review: The Americans, Episode 3

So this week instead of sex we open with a racquetball scene, which is not quite as racy, but at least we get the heavy-handed metaphor for Agent Beeman’s (knowing? Maybe not? Does he know, even?) pursuit of Elizabeth and Phillip. From the look he gets when his mole at the Soviet embassy, Nina, mentions Directorate S, we at least know that he knows that’s something big.

There’s a lot and really not all that much that happens here. The direction is for the most part faster-paced than we’ve seen previously, hopping deftly between storylines – we can credit that to the director, Thomas Schlamme, previously best known (by me, at least) for his work with Aaron Sorkin on The West Wing. He puts together a lot of really nice scenes here too, like the excellent and complicated one where Elizabeth and Phillip’s (really, just Elizabeth’s, but more on that later) man in Philadelphia takes Joyce Ramirez’s trail off her and brings her to meet everybody’s favorite Soviets. It’s a scene where a lot has to happen fairly quickly, but it never gets too confusing while still making the viewer work to keep up with what’s going on. While this is a relatively well-worn maneuver, it’s still worth mentioning – most of the scenes with the Soviets have an unsteady, shaking camera, while the scenes we see with the FBI are shot with far more stability, indicating both the certainty that Beeman has in his mission and the uncertainty the Jennings, at this moment, feel about almost everything.

It turns out Elizabeth and Gregory (the episode’s titular character) have more of a past than Phillip knows – though when Elizabeth confesses to Gregory that she’s started to develop more feelings than expected for Phillip and says they have to put a stop to the romantic aspect of their relationship, Gregory does basically just the opposite, confronting (in a way) Phillip in the kitchen of the safe house. Elizabeth has clearly told Gregory almost everything, if not everything, about their cover lives, about past unhappiness with Phillip, about everything, really, so this hits Phillip hard because it means she’s trusted Gregory in a way that she’s never trusted him.

Phillip has the most to be uncertain about this episode, as his head is being fucked with from several directions right from the start on the racquetball court (and as we can see from the ball smacked into Beeman’s spine and the faces of those two guys who just wouldn’t get out of his blind spot, he tends to lash out when he’s uncertain). He learns that a man he considered his friend, Robert, had a secret wife and child in Philadelphia and was working a huge lead for the plans to the missile defense system that he also kept from Phillip. He and Elizabeth have a new handler (played by the terrific Margo Martindale, so I’m quite happy we’ll be seeing more of her) who first shows up at a diner where he and Paige are eating together. On top of all this, he finds out that Elizabeth has been lying to him for years, all while telling the truth to Gregory.

At the end of all this, there is a quiet, almost desperate scene of the couple back in their suburban kitchen. Elizabeth tells Phillip how she and Gregory came to be, and while I won’t go into her justifications, I think they’re reasonable. The scene does raise an interesting question, though: what does it mean for the mission when the pretend starts to become real? As Elizabeth notes, the feelings they were pretending to have for each other when they first came to America just didn’t happen, but, she says, “I feel like it’s happening now, though.”

Final notes: I really like the travel agency as a place for the story to retreat to and gather its senses momentarily. Also, it hit me halfway through this episode that the show reminds me a lot of Breaking Bad in its juxtaposition of Beeman’s storyline with the Jennings’. It mirrors Walter White’s drug business and the contrast it draws with his brother-in-law’s DEA work, while managing to make us root for both. It’s hard to sum up precisely, but while we don’t want to see Beeman succeed per se, since that would mean the failure of the Jennings, we don’t necessarily want to see him fail either. This can be hard for a show to pull off, but so far The Americans has managed to, which bodes well for its future.

Review: The Americans, Episode 2

Right out of the gate, this is a spectacularly strong follow-up to what was already a decently strong pilot. Some of the things I was nervous about while watching that first episode come up again here, but on the whole, all of it improves on the previous week. The single biggest improvement is that almost nothing feels forced, as opposed to the pilot, where they were trying to fit in so much background that much of it asked us to believe things without giving us much reason to – like Agent Beeman moving into the neighborhood, like Phillip’s sudden desire to defect when he has (presumably) been a stellar Soviet agent up to that point. I’ll begin at the beginning:

They really like to open with sex scenes, don’t they? We get it, you’re rated TV-MA, you’re on FX, you can almost show sex. It is a nice contrast to the pilot, however, because here it’s Phillip playing the seducer to Annalise (played by Gillian Alexy). In their interactions, we see how these spy relationships usually play out – they’re one-sided, with the mark professing actual love and spy faking it, which provides a nice screen to view Phillip and Elizabeth’s relationship against, where both are doing a little bit of each. We didn’t see much of Elizabeth’s love for Phillip in the pilot (with the exception of that ‘In the Air Tonight’ scene), but here we do see some jealousy on her part when she sees a photo of Annalise and comments to Phillip, “You never said she looked like that.”

This leads me to one of the great successes of the show so far, which is that the writers are able to make us root for Soviet spies who are actively trying to destroy America. It helps that we know, historically, that they don’t succeed, but the show is crafted in such a way that we want Phillip and Elizabeth’s marriage to succeed – and this relies, at least in part, on the immediate success of their mission. There’s so much suspense in their near-impossible three day time-frame to plant a bug in the Secretary of Defense’s office not because of what it means to the Russians if they fail, but because of what it means for their marriage.

Here’s where some of the problems arise: even though I want their plan to bug the office to succeed (said plan being that they poison the maid’s son and subsequently tell her they have the antidote and will administer it if she does as they say), some of the reasons it does succeed are hard for me to accept. For one, Phillip tells the maid, Viola (Tonye Patano, better known as Heylia James on Showtime’s Weeds), that “the best doctor in the world can’t make this antidote.” Really? How’d he get it, then? I understand that he’s playing off the presumed medical ignorance of Viola, but, shit, that’s an awfully big risk to take when the stakes are so high. While we’re talking high stakes, how about Phillip’s fight with Viola’s brother, Albert? It’s another nearly-unbelievable plot point. Given what we know and have seen of Phillip’s combat prowess, there’s no way Albert puts up that much of a fight. I mean, he could be ex-special ops or some shit, but I doubt it (still, fun to watch, as fights seem to be something this show has down pat).

Really, though, those were the only problems I had with this episode, and they’re obscured by the better moments, which are far more plentiful. Phillip’s stare down with Henry over the dry toothbrush threat is funny and believable, because I had that same conversation with my parents more than once as a kid. Elizabeth tries to be the cool mom and pierces Paige’s ears for her, and both these moments cement for us just what is at stake if these spy-parents fuck up. Beeman comes over with the caviar he confiscated from the stereo man, which sets up both a funny scene in which Phillip has to pretend like he’s never had caviar and one in which Phillip and Elizabeth share some and reminisce, wordlessly, about the motherland.

I like the pilot much more in retrospect, having seen this episode. Every little moment we see between Elizabeth and Phillip works, and I mean really, really works, because of what we saw in the pilot. Their conversation in bed about what happens to their children if they screw up, the interaction at the travel agency/secret spy base when Phillip sees that Elizabeth is carrying a gun on her, the shot of them holding hands in the car after a last ditch attempt to convince Viola to to put the bugged clock back – it all works. That being said, if what happens is they end up defecting and the series ever sees them working as double agents, I’ll be disappointed as shit – but, if these first two episodes are any indication, the ride to that point will be pretty goddamn fun, and I’m definitely willing to take that ride.

Final notes: Annalise might be a problem down the line, as will the brunette at the Soviet embassy that Beeman manipulates into being his mole.

Review: The Americans, Pilot

I’ve been hearing really good things about this show from a few different corners of the internet, so I decided to give it a shot despite my initial reluctance (it’s a Cold War spy show on FX, how good can it be, what can they do that hasn’t been done before, and on ran my reasons not to watch) and I’m really glad I did. There are some bumps and moments I don’t buy here in the pilot, but overall, it’s superbly put together, and probably one of the best dramas to premiere this season. It’s written and produced by Joseph Weisberg, himself a former CIA officer, who also has previous writing credits on Falling Skies (fucking terrible, just terrible) and Damages (another show I’ve heard good things about but have yet to watch). FX has been willing to take some risks on its programming of late (Archer, Justified, probably other things, oh yeah, Legit, Wilfred) and those risks have, for the most part, paid off with some decent television. So with all that preamble rambling out of the way, the review:

The episode starts out with amazingly – the short segment with Keri Russell and a Justice Department official is a little much, but the ensuing chase through the alleys of D.C. set to Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk (great song, and excellent use of it here) is some of the best television I’ve seen in a while. From there, we move fairly quickly through scenes establishing background for the main characters – Russell plays a Russian spy named Elizabeth Jennings, stationed in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. with her partner, Phillip Jennings (played by a top-of-his-game Matthew Rhys), posing as her husband. As we come to find out, they are legitimately married and have two children (both played relatively well by Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati), though the tension between their cover life and their real life as agents of Soviet Russia comes to the forefront again and again.

Side note: Noah Emmerich, seen here as FBI Agent Stan Beeman, is, as usual (see: The Walking Dead, The Truman Show, Windtalkers) also excellent. Most of what happens with him happens in order to create the potential for story lines moving forward, so I won’t say much about it now except this (about the potential for storylines in general): the pilot leaves open quite a few interesting ones, which bodes well for the future of the show. Agent Beeman’s storyline is clearly meant to be one of the stronger and more immediate ones (he was formerly working undercover himself and has been brought to D.C. in part to ferret out possible Soviet agents, then moves in next door to the Jennings), and while it feels a bit forced at the moment, I’m willing to look past that if it pans out as a compelling story.

Some of the smaller moments in the Jennings family work very well, although as a whole many of the interactions – especially early in the episode – feel unnatural. They begin to seem slightly more natural by the end of the episode, so my hope is that some of the initial awkwardness is the result of the show working so hard (maybe a little too hard) to establish them as a believable family. When Phillip is speaking to his daughter about how sometimes in business you have to do things because if “you keep the executives happy, you keep the accounts,” it lands perfectly – his glance at Elizabeth makes clear that he’s also talking about their mission here in the U.S., and the very real possibility of it – and their children – being taken away from them if they fuck up.

The only thing I found really didn’t work for me here were the flashbacks to the ’60s, when the Jennings were still Russians in Russia – it could be a fundamental misunderstanding of Soviet culture (which could be intentional, I can’t decide yet), but it all seems bent on making the audience view the Russians, with the exception of the protagonists as, at their core, evil. While it sets up necessary background plot points, it also feels fairly manipulative, as if the writers don’t trust the viewers to make up their own minds about the country the anti-heroes come from.

All in all, this is a promising new show. I’m several weeks behind, so I’m going to try and catch up in the next few weeks and hopefully be writing night-of or day-after reviews by mid-month.

 

The Weird Thing About Star Trek TNG: Realm of Fear

I’ve always been a big fan of the Star Trek series (though by no means a trekkie), and The Next Generation is my favorite incarnation of it. That being said, there’s a huge problem in the second episode of the sixth season, Realm of Fear. It’s an episode that features the bumbling Lieutenant Reginald Barclay (first seen having problems with holodeck addiction in an episode with a lot of weird masturbatory allusions, but that’s another discussion entirely) attempting to overcome his transporter-phobia. When he finally does, he ends up seeing an odd creature in the beam with him.

As science fiction, Star Trek has always been fairly conscious of the various technologies used in its version of the future. This episode, however, presents us with a major metaphysical question: how the fuck does Barclay see something while being transported? As is noted in the episode, you’re being dissembled at the molecular level and put back together at your destination. Shouldn’t this be an essentially instantaneous process, not one that leaves the traveler with time to get freaked the fuck out by gremlin-terror-worms and whatnot?

If the writers are trying to say that consciousness exists outside the body, that’s fine, but it’s not even addressed. It throws open some pretty big existential doors and subsequently ignores what’s outside them. LaForge, Riker, Troi and even freaking Picard (seriously, this is a guy who never gives up a chance to pontificate on philosophy, and he lets this one go?) don’t blink at Barclay’s apparent third eye. It would be easier to understand if this was a smaller part of the episode and a less important philosophical question, but the episode hinges on the moments Barclay is inside the transporter beam, and humans have been wondering if the mind is of the body or outside it since we’ve had the words to ask.

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